A mystic society in Mobile is equivalent to a New Orleans krewe.
Of course, mystic societies were here first.
They’re Mobile Mardi Gras organizations that put on events like parades and balls for its members and the public.
These mystic society members are the ones who present Mardi Gras floats and costumes every year.
Social, economic, and racial stratification have all been the cornerstones of these societies.
In Mobile, a few of the notable ones include:
- Orda of Inca
- Butterfly Maidens
- Mystic of Time
- Conde Cavaliers
- Mobile Mystics
- Comic Cowboys
- Maids of Mirth
(I’ve been to plenty of these organization’s balls and parties!)
Read on to find out more about these elusive mystic societies.
After all, we certainly can’t celebrate Mardi Gras without them.
A Very Brief History of Mardi Gras
Mystic societies organize the parades that have turned Mobile into an attraction.
As early as four weeks before Mardi Gras day, these spectacular parades begin.
Lent officially kicks off the following day, on Ash Wednesday, marking the end of the carnival season.
Founded in 1802, it has been under French, British, Spanish, and American rule over the course of its 160-year history up until the American Civil War.
In 1711, a paper mâché bull was dragged through the streets, marking the start of the first Carnival.
This earliest parade in North America was called Beouf Gras.
Mobile’s mystical societies get together every year to design and construct elaborate floats and costumes for the annual Carnival parade.
They don’t just have one big mystic societies parade on Mardi Gras.
With 70 active societies, the celebration lasts for nearly a whole month leading up to the big day.
Who Are In These Societies?
During Mardis Gras, you may have wondered what on earth those men in costume were doing standing on street corners.
They must be part of some mysterious group.
They can be quite the enigma if you don’t know the ins and outs of Mardi Gras.
Are they part of some fraternity or sorority?
It seems like there’s an aspect of ritual or initiation going on here.
Well, these groups may consist of men, women, married couples, or individuals of varying classes, economic, and racial groups.
Historically, men have played a central role in these groups, but they also have strong ties to other classifying subsets.
They could be extremely conventional or wildly risque.
Each year, they choose a theme that encompasses their Carnival celebrations.
The invitations are works of art in and of themselves, full of complex details and fascinating designs.
They also tend to wear disguises.
What Goes On In Bal Masques?
The elaborate masquerade balls (bal masqués) hosted by Mobile’s many mystical groups are nearly always invite-only affairs.
When attending a ball, proper attire is essential as there is a strict dress code.
Guests are expected to wear floor-length dresses with white ties and tails, while members of high society often wear masks.
There is music, dancing, eating, and drinking at the bal masqués.
(Ok, I’ve been to plenty – it’s basically one big party where you dress fancy.)
It is customary for the setting, décor, and costumes at a bal masqué to all adhere to the same theme.
A ‘coming out ball’ is a traditional type of ball for young women.
It’s meant to introduce them to a respectable company.
The South is quite serious about upholding its traditions, which are evocative of a bygone era.
A trip to the Mobile Carnival Museum can help you gain insight into the nature of mystical societies.
You’ll learn about the background of this social highlight of the year as well as its costumes, pomp, and ceremony.
There’s not much information on these masked society members, so you’ll have to do some digging around.
You may view several artifacts related to these secret organizations, such as ornate trains, crowns, invites, throws, and even a massive float!
What is Mardi Gras Royalty?
The ball culminates in the coronation of a new King and Queen.
Every Mardi Gras organization has its own royalty, and they all get crowns and scepters to show it.
In all cases, either Felix III or Elexia I reign as the king.
Of course, they’re accompanied by their queens.
There are also typically ladies-in-waiting, knights, pages, heralds, and equerries in royal courts.
All these roles have a part in the royal procession.
While the full-length evening gowns themselves may be eye-catching, it is the capes (or trains) that steal the show.
(you can catch some of these trains in our previous year’s Mardi Gras photo recap).
They are hand-sewn and embellished with the symbols of their secret societies.
Each one is constructed specifically for the king or queen and may feature symbols or references related to their education, profession, hobbies, or other interests.
Large and ornate as they are, trains can be difficult to maneuver without the help of ball bearings.
Segregation in Mobile’s Mardi Gras
Parts of Mobile’s Mardi Gras celebrations continue to have long-standing customs that date back to the days of segregation.
(We have no written or direct knowledge of this other than what we can see and experience as observers).
The Mobile Area Mardi Gras Association (formerly named the Colored Carnival Association) was founded in 1939.
The Mobile Carnival Association, Mobile’s earliest Mardi Gras organization, dates back to the mid-1800s and was reformed in 1893.
Each group chooses its own monarchy and court.
Even earlier examples exist.
The Continental Mystic Crew was the first Jewish mystic society to form in 1890, and the Order of Doves was the first black mystic society to form in 1894.
In today’s time, many organizations have members from all races and colors, but we don’t believe it’s the case for all.
More About The Mobile Carnival Museum
If you are still curious about mystic societies, head on over to the Mobile Carnival Museum.
It chronicles the city’s 300-plus-year-long affiliation with Carnival and Mardi Gras.
The Bernstein-Bush mansion on Government Street in downtown Mobile now serves as the museum’s home.
Exhibits at the museum trace the history of the local holiday from its humble beginnings to its status as a time-honored custom today.
The Queen’s Gallery is where all of the extravagant costumes, veils, and crown jewels worn by the queens of Carnival.
A flapper queen’s outfit from the 1920s is still on exhibit, as are the jester outfits of numerous prominent parading clubs.
The collections also feature unique works of art, such as doubloons, tableau designs, and ball invitations created by local artisans.
The old carriage house of the property now houses interactive displays.
Visitors may even go up on a carnival float themselves.
What Are “Throws”?
As they march through the streets of Mobile, members of the organization toss throws, which are little gifts, to the onlookers.
Examples of common throws are:
- Glow sticks
- Medallion necklaces
- Bead necklaces
- Moon Pies
- Random trinkets
- Stuffed animals
- Can coolers
Tossing doubloons, in particular, is an intriguing custom.
These are custom-made coins or medallions minted to bear the theme, logo, or insignia of the secret society.
These are the kinds of throws that people save and keep for years.
Some FAQs – Mobile Mardi Gras Organizations
Can I attend a Mardi Gras ball?
Attending a Mardi Gras ball requires an invitation, which can only be extended by a mystic society member.
Inquire around to find out which balls are more exclusive than others.
What is a second line?
The second line is a parade or ball ritual that originated in New Orleans jazz funerals.
It normally involves a large group of folks carrying umbrellas and walking in rhythm.
Back then, these were the people who joined the funeral procession after the family, hearse, and band (the “first line”).
In Mobile, the second line is linked with Mardi Gras, but you can witness these all year round in New Orleans.
Do I need to bring anything to a parade?
You might want to bring a bag or two to hold the throws you catch.
Attendees who want to get the attention of the riders can bring banners or wear light-up caps.
Those who want to retrieve throws that have rolled under the barricades could bring a small rake.
Of course, a cute little kid, or “bead magnet,” is the best “accessory” you can take along.
The use of laser pointers, skateboards, motorized scooters, and Silly String are all prohibited.
If you hurl anything at the floats or the people in the parade, you will be fined a lot of money!
What’s with the Moon Pies?
Throwable party pies were first popularized in Mobile thanks to the Comic Cowboys, a secret group founded by the city’s ugliest cowboy.
Back in the 1950s, a Comic Cowboy whose dad was a baker supposedly became the first mystic to throw around these baked goodies.
He needed a more aerodynamic throw to reach people behind second-story iron balconies, so he came up with the Moon Pie.
The Maids of Mirth get the credit in another version of the story.
In the 1970s, women began throwing these treats because they felt safer with their round form than with Cracker Jack, the other favorite throw at the time.
Keeping members’ identities hidden is a common practice among mystic societies.
It dates back to the first Medieval Carnivals when revelers donned masks to heighten the mystery and thrill of the festivities.
There’s not much to be said about these folks now, but their presence definitely shines during Mobile’s favorite time of year.
Try attending a few parades and catch a glimpse of these society members yourself.
You’ll come home with more than a few souvenirs, that’s for sure.
Get all your burning questions about Mardi Gras answered here.
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Additional Mardi Gras Info
So that you know, it is Mardi Gras happening in Mobile these days.
Here are some resources to help you make the most of this most awaited annual celebration.